Modern-day colonialism, culture, and the meaning of life

This is my first post here, so hello people, I'm some guy and I've previously lived here. This spring break I spent the week visiting a good friend who is teaching high school math in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of New Stuyahok in the bush in southwestern Alaska. Since it was only a week, a week in which I planned to hike around and read math, since I wasn't particularly social or observant for most of it and talked largely to one person, these impressions are just that: I'm not vouching for their correctness. They also have little to do with the stated scope of this blog. Finally, I doubt any of what I'm saying is new; most of it is not new even to me. Still, the trip left me with a lot to write about, so here I go.

New Stu is spread over a few de facto nameless dirt roads on a hillside sloping down to the Nushagak River. The brand-new snazzy "Chief" Ivan Blunka School (yes, with the quotes) stands suggestively at the top of the hill. The teachers -- the only white people in a place of 500 or so -- live in an adjacent housing complex and refer to the rest as "the natives," a habit which is hard to resist no matter how patronizing and colonial it feels. In late March, the river is still almost entirely frozen over, though it has been a warm winter and the snowmobiles are forced to tear through half-snowless ground. Sled dogs, tied up by houses down the hill, yap violently when they sense a stranger.

The thing is, the world of the Yup'ik is falling apart, and nothing is coming to replace it. The kids speak English in drawn-out, alien-sounding syllables, as if the words had to be unwound from creaky spinning wheels deep inside; yet most of them speak hardly any Yup'ik. The villagers live an ostensibly hunter-gatherer "subsistence lifestyle;" yet they ride snowmobiles they pay for with dividend money, and I doubt they make very many of the clothes they wear. It's inhumane to expect otherwise, of course, because in a real "subsistence lifestyle" most people die in childhood from preventable diseases. But without the urgency of subsistence and without anything to fill the gap, the adults turn to drinking and gambling.

In some sense, New Stu is what we like to call a post-scarcity society. This is not to say that some people aren't legitimately poor and sometimes have trouble getting by. Because there's a lower bound imposed by the dividend from the native fund, and on the other hand there's just not that much you can own or do in a place this remote, everyone has essentially the same set of things and differences are not apparent. But whether people's needs are filled or whether there is just not a good way to expend time and effort in order to fill them, the most obvious problem relevant to a post-scarcity society is apparent here: boredom.

I read somewhere that hunter-gatherers always had plenty of time on their hands, and it was that damned invention of agriculture that, while providing a consistent food supply, destroyed the idyll humans were meant to live in. After seeing--no, who am I kidding--after talking to Lori about New Stu, I find this significantly harder to believe. People in their natural state just don't know how to deal with free time.

But maybe the trouble is just with the generation that had to adapt to the sudden intrusion of America into their lives? Are the younger ones doing better?

I met Tammy in the stairwell leading up to Lori's apartment. Kids would hang out there because it's one of the few public indoor places in the village, and probably also because they wanted to meet a stranger. They were easy to talk to, because they would volunteer all sorts of information, sometimes puzzling. "You're 22? Wow! You look older than my mom! She's 37!" The first thing Tammy said was, "I like drawing. I'm going to be an artist." I wanted to see.

So the next day, ninth-grader Tammy, looking serious in glasses like an owlet, comes in with a folder (should I say--a portfolio?) and we sit down to look. On top are slavish portraits of anime characters; Dragonball Z, she explained later. The rest is largely animals drawn in the same style. There is nothing childishly fresh here, nothing Yup'ik, nothing particularly imaginative. From what I could understand from her disjointed narrative, there had been an art teacher at the school for one year a couple years ago, and her only formal art instruction was with him. People had offered to send Tammy to Sitka or even all the way to Washington state for art school, but instead, for some reason, she would be teaching art to the other kids the following year. No, she didn't have a favorite artist.

Apparently, Tammy represents a general problem. You might tell kids about a one-week summer program in Dillingham, 50 miles away. You might fill out the forms for them. You might remind them that all they do all summer is walk up and down the hill and complain about how bored they are. They won't go. And in adulthood, too, they will largely stay in New Stu.

Is this a problem? Indeed, is any of what I've described a problem? Alcoholism and addictions clearly are: they make people unhealthy, abusive, unhappy at last. It's a little harder to justify lamenting cultural change. After all, snowmobiles, classrooms, cell phones and iPods are all cultural artifacts, and any culture has to adapt to them to remain relevant. And like most any culture, the Yup'ik have survived previous outside assaults which left as scars a Russian Orthodox church and a variant of Christmas caroling called Slavi (presumably derived from the Slavic root meaning 'praise', which compels me to mention Hallelujah, a religion deposited by missionaries in a different corner of the Americas.) Perhaps, as much as people like me weep at the loss of a distinct way of seeing the world with its poetry, as much as American culture in general values heritage as one of the more important of the myriad ways to build up an identity and connect with others, these kids will be happier in a modern world watching Dragonball Z and rocking out to Britney Spears?

This would perhaps be a valid argument if the community itself were disappearing. But people are staying in New Stuyahok, and as long as they are, they need, if not an occupation--I don't like our society's obsession with occupation--then some sort of raison d'ĂȘtre. The area is too flat and unspectacular for wilderness tourism and pretty much too remote for hunting or fishing tourism. It is in no way self-sustaining. Though it does sell some salmon, there is no particular economic reason for New Stu to exist--in fact, given the amount of goods that must be flown in, the place is profoundly unsustainable, and without the native claims settlement, it might not still be there. Which is why I at first placed so much hope in Tammy: the only thing the Yup'ik really have is their culture. The village could remain as a sort of factory of human experience that exports art and know-how and understanding. But to make this possible, Yup'ik culture would need to bend masterfully so as not to break.

Whereupon we've circled back up the hill, because it's in the school that such a synthesis could take place. Right now, of course, as anywhere in the US, the school teaches a standard mix of often hard to justify subjects which are supposed to prepare kids for college, which is in turn supposed to prepare them for jobs. Colleges teach little that is relevant to people's future jobs; secondary schools, even less. And people who don't need to jump through these hoops feel justifiably uninspired by the whole charade. This includes most of the people in New Stu.

What could the school be doing for those who are not going to take advantage of the opportunity to get out? While I was there, I saw the kids practicing for Native Youth Olympics. They would line up in front of a little ball hanging from a string. In turn, they would jump up and kick it with one hand planted on the ground. I have no idea what relation this activity bears to anything natively Alaskan--certainly no cultural exchange with towns in ancient Greece was involved--but it looked fun and athletic and I'd never seen anything like it.

It's possible to see this sort of cultural assimilation as a negative--that it produces a product that's inauthentic, or some other such adjective. But I think that the way such traditions can survive most authentically and unartificially in a modern world is by being assimilated into a framework that fits into its context. Because the place is so small and remote, there are two factors that make this hard. On the one hand, Tammy cannot relate to most of Western culture: it's far away, its exponents look different and their experiences have almost nothing to do with hers. So she echoes the Soviet joke about (perhaps not coincidentally) a Chukcha who applies to become a member of the Writers' Union: "Have you read Pushkin?" "No." "Tolstoy?" "No." "Dostoevsky?" "No." "What have you read then?" "Chukcha is not reader, Chukcha is writer!" On the other hand, there are simply not enough Yup'ik to even potentially produce a stream of culture strong enough to prevent her from being captivated by commonplaces such as Dragonball Z. Perhaps the school could be a partnership to fix both these problems by manufacturing a Yup'ik culture that feeds both from and into the Western mainstream, as seems to have already been done in the domain of sports. Obviously, this would require a good deal of creativity; but judging from the number of rock bands formed in a typical high school, there's plenty of that to go around, and this is not going to be any different in New Stu. The more difficult problem is finding outsiders who can help perform the synthesis in an aesthetically and anthropologically sensitive way.

This may be even more difficult than it seems. I didn't experience it myself, perhaps because I hardly interacted with any Yup'ik adults, but prejudice against outsiders is a common theme in the teachers' conversations. And how could it be otherwise? After all, in some sense the white man did cause the calamities that have transformed and are starting to destroy the community. And while the kids don't seem to have the same prejudices, there's the danger that cultivating them exclusively would separate them from the rest of the community even more than they are now. In other words, whoever undertakes this would have to tread very carefully.

Who can do this? Well, what are the current job prospects for a grad student in the humanities? These people are trained precisely in taking apart bits of culture, and would presumably be receptive to the aims and values of such an endeavor. In fact, at this point I'm envisioning some sort of fuzzy Peace Corps of anthropologists, historians, and literary theorists bringing bringing peace, happiness and enlightenment to the world.

Immediately, this may sound absurd and off the mark. Do the problems of the Alaska bush--boredom, isolation physical and social, and a lack of critical mass for unmediated cultural development--really extend to the rest of the world in any meaningful way? And is there a whiff of colonialism and "The White Man's Burden" that makes the whole proposition potentially distasteful?

As technological progress continues in developed countries, parts of the Third World fall further and further behind. Even now, we could feed and clothe the world with what we have, and to me it feels wrong not to. But doing so would be a disservice because, as is evident from the example of New Stuyahok, it makes people feel powerless and irrelevant, if perhaps not consciously. If we are to feed the world, we must provide an antidote to this powerlessness. But one way to empower people that isn't necessarily tied to monetary resources--especially with the Internet at the fingertips of so many--is an education geared towards the arts, which, as copyright on the one hand and survival on the other become less relevant, are gradually separated from the economy of money, goods and services. And in this context, a bit of cultural imperialism is inevitable, because technological imperialism is inevitable, bringing with it all the Dragonball Z's and Britney Spearses to which we end up having to sacrifice some toes to preserve the body.

All this is not to belittle the need to provide basic literacy, educational opportunities, and improvements in infrastructure throughout the developing world. What I'm trying to say is that thoughtless charity--the alien-looking school sitting on top of the hill--can hurt people, prevent them from helping themselves. What I've described is one way of counteracting this, which does not stand by itself, but could also help preserve cultural diversity.

But this grandiose speculation is almost independent of my original topic: the problems I found when I visited southwestern Alaska. And in that context my thesis is much less controversial. There is no reason for most schoolkids in New Stu to learn necessarily watered-down high school algebra. They need to learn how to avoid boredom, because this is something that most people don't learn by themselves.

Travis, in a shirt loudly proclaiming slackerhood, walked into the apartment with another middle-schooler, Silly, and spent a while conversing with Lori in Pig Latin, which I could barely follow. Eventually, though, the first letters of his words came back where they belonged, and his life came out in fits. He talked about his grandparents, about how important it is for kids to appreciate everything their elders do for them, and about how many don't; about native cooking and his favorite dish, stinky fish heads, consisting of fish heads and entrails fermented in a barrel for a few weeks. He knew a number of words in Yup'ik, though not so many that he could resist spending a while just listing them. In high school, he will study Yup'ik so that he can talk to the elders in the church. (Every few minutes, Silly texts Travis from across the room and giggles uncontrollably. Travis's phone chants "Na-na-nanana, I've got a text, you can't see it.") When he grows up, Travis will go to Kodiak Island to study to become an Orthodox priest. He will marry--his wife needs to be a good cook!--and settle wherever the bishop tells him to.

Here is another thing this area needs: people who get out, get some perspective, and come back. If Travis comes back, the others will trust him, and this is important. But equally importantly, he will have experience both inside and outside. Whether what seemed to be his ingrained conservatism is what New Stu needs is perhaps irrelevant. All that matters is that he can see the problems, see that things can be different, and try to make it so.

Later we found out that Travis's dad had just gone on another drinking spree.


  1. One time, Mason and I were driving to Moontribe. I requested that he speculate about the future, and he returned something like "I don't know, I think we're just going to get progressively more bored". Later, we saw a rabbit eating another rabbit. I guess it was a pretty good drive.

    I think you might hold the record for longest and most coherent post on here so far ... unless perhaps you group to together Biff's five part futurism essay,

  2. Let me get this out of the way: you make the rest of us look bad. Simply an incredible post.

    You example of the Yup'ik raises two relevant and very important issues: a sense of cultural community in the mediated global culture, and a sense of power(lessness) in a global economy. Though as a dispossessed people at the fringes of the economic system, they are more vulnerable than most, as the global economic/cultural system accelerates, the question of whether we generally become more like the Power Elites, or more like the Yup'ik, becomes very relevant. I believe that people are actually disempowered by the state of technology, for a variety of reasons which are too complex too go here, and should be the subject of a post or two.

    Sounds like you had quite an adventure, and I'm glad that you're now a contributor to We Alone. Sounds like you had one amazing adventure.

  3. Impressive. Thanks for the link.